Bellingham senior Olivia Halverson couldn't keep a smile off her face.
Coach Kim Bjorklund said it felt like her Red Raiders didn't leave the gym for an hour or two. Some players posed for pictures. Others mingled with fans, basking in the glory of a 3-1 home win against Lynden Christian Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Bellingham High.
"It felt like you were on a cloud," Halverson said of the conference victory during a phone interview. "I think the crowd was 10 percent of the win."
Such post-game festivities may not have been in order for a perennial conference power. Bellingham's celebration was four years in the making, though.
That's how long, to the day, the Red Raiders had gone since winning their last home match.
In fact, since Bellingham's win against Sedro-Woolley four years ago, the Red Raiders have won a total of three matches.
Hard times are beginning to look like a thing of the past.
"I know the kids are tired of being the doormat of the league," Bjorklund said in a phone interview. "They have put in the hours in the offseason, and there is a definite attitude change. They're starting to realize (matches) are up for grabs. No team is going to win just because they are from Lynden. That's starting to sink in."
Bellingham has already matched its three year win total in four matches. The Red Raiders are 3-1 overall and 2-1 in Northwest Conference play.
At the beginning of the year, Bjorklund, who's in her third year as Bellingham's head coach, though she's been with the volleyball program for the past 10 years, said she's been patiently waiting for this year's group of girls to get together. Opposing teams are finding out why.
Intense competition at practice, a pair of tested senior captains, two talented sophomores and a deep, versatile roster has changed Bellingham from a NWC cellar dweller to a group capable of contending with the conference's finest.
"There's been a real change in the mentality of the team," Bjorklund said. "We know we need to play good volleyball, which means reducing the unforced errors. We don't need the super-pounding kill or to go for the ace each time. We need good play. That has been keeping us in rallies and has reduced our unforced errors. We also have a lot of good shots in our toolbox."
Many of those shots come from opposite hitter Halverson, sophomores Anna Zeegers and Olivia Bjorklund and juniors Alicia Romero and Izzi Roberts. Behind those shots is senior setter Cari Pearsall.
The prospect of a successful season in terms of wins and losses is especially exciting for Halverson, who's been playing varsity ball since she was a freshman.
"I'm really excited about this season," Halverson said. "We have a lot of diversity with people who can pass, set and hit. Our serving is great. I have been looking forward to this season for a couple years now. We have it."
Toward the end of last season, Halverson and Pearsall began thinking about this year.
"Me and Cari knew we were going to be the only seniors, so it felt like it came upon us to decide if we were going to push through or if it was going to be one of those years again."
The two seniors' decision to make 2012 special became apparent in the offseason.
Kim raved about the extra work the Red Raiders put in during preparation for the fall. That work has carried over to Bellingham's competitive practices, which are often led by Halverson's high-energy play.
Halverson has an intense competitive spirit that Kim said has been infectious to the rest of the team. It shows during matches and especially during turnout.
From basic drills to live simulated matches, Kim charts everything during practice. She said tracking stats holds players accountable and creates an ultra-competitive environment.
"I grew up with three brothers," Halverson said. "When you have four children, they're going to come for the spotlight. I've always been competitive. In sports in school, it's just always been a part of me to try to get better and better. It's embarrassing to admit, but in practice I will be hungry for any points. I go over to Kim and make sure she has the counts right. They'll tell me, 'Hey, calm down. It's just a drill.' I'll say, 'Hey, we're going to win this.' I just don't want anyone to come to practice to waste time. I want us to get the job done."
Halverson has needed to take advantage of the high-intensity practices since she changed positions from middle blocker to opposite hitter.
Though she's played all three hitting positions, Halverson said she loves her new position, and it seems to be a natural fit.
A 6-foot-1 lefty who placed fourth in the high jump at the 2012 4A-3A-2A Washington State Track and Field Championships, Halverson can use her left hand to her advantage as an opposite, block against a team's top hitters and easily take the opposition out of its offensive rhythm with cross-court hits.
While Halverson has undoubtedly played a large role in helping turn Bellingham's fortunes around, she's quick to deflect praise to her teammates.
"Honestly, I feel like all 11 of us have something to bring to the table," Halverson said. "I can't even take credit, myself. I have to give credit to the other players. My success is their success."
Now that Bellingham has begun the process of putting a winning product on the court, Halverson hopes the team follows with a winning attitude about the program.
"I want us to take pride in wearing that Red Raider volleyball shirt in the halls," Halverson said.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.